Purdue Pharma, the makers of the opioid OxyContin, are said to have aggressively marketed the drug despite knowing their drug was widely abused and concealed their knowledge of that abuse since 1997. People from the late actor Heath Ledger to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh have battled addictions and abuse of Purdue’s flagship opioid.
Now they’re facing the music.
After agreeing to settle an Oklahoma lawsuit for $270 million over the company’s role in igniting the national opioid crisis, a new lawsuit has risen to take its place — this time from New York.
New York prosecutors filed charges Thursday alleging fraudulent money transfers against Purdue and the family that owns the drug manufacturer. The complaint argues that eight members of the Sackler family used a number of corporate entities as vehicles to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in opioid profits directly into their personal pockets.
“The Sacklers’ full understanding of opioids’ abuse and addiction risk is underscored by their willingness to research, quantify and ultimately monetize opioid abuse and addiction by pursuing the development of medications to treat the addiction their own opioids caused,” argues the filing.
And that understanding was extensive and egregious. In a case settled by the Bush administration in 2007, federal prosecutors found that Purdue employees used phrases like “street value,” “crush,” or “snort” in 117 internal notes just between 1997 and 1999. In 1999, Purdue said to pharmacies: “OxyContin as the hottest thing on the street — forget Vicodin.”
And thanks to its aggressive marketing, Purdue succeeded in increasing non-cancer prescriptions of OxyContin from 670,000 in 1997 (when they discovered its widespread abuse) to 6.2 million in 2002. In 2013, total OxyContin prescriptions reached 53 million. And a record-setting 47,600 people died of opioid overdoses in 2017.
The Sackler family is personally worth an estimated $13 billion.
Purdue, at least, seems to have stopped short of making a rap video where its opioid danced.
“Suggesting that activities that last occurred more than 16 years ago are responsible for today’s complex and multifaceted opioid crisis is deeply flawed,” Purdue spokesperson Robert Josephson said in a statement last year.
Purdue faces more than 1,600 lawsuits at present.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.